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SD Department of Education May 2016  

One answer, multiple paths

Mona McClure likes math because problems have one right answer. “It’s cut and dry. There’s a number or solution everybody needs to get to,” says the Eagle Butte 7th grade math teacher.

While everybody is headed to the same place, not everyone will use the same path. McClure likes that, too, and she knows she’s not the only one in the room with a map. Students can provide each other a lot of guidance.

McClure regularly has students work in pairs or groups. “I tell them, it’s not cheating,” she says. “Look at your classmate’s paper. Does it look like yours? Do you have the same answers? If not, why? You need to be talking about that.”

And when students are talking about those differences, they don’t need to sound like McClure. Hers is adult language, grounded in years of experience teaching math, but a student also benefits from hearing something explained in the language of a peer.

For example, in one lesson, McClure defined a regular polygon as one in which all the sides have the same length and all the angles have the same measure. As she listened to her students discuss the topic, she consistently heard them define a regular polygon this way: the sides are equal and the angles are equal.

“It’s the same thing I’m saying, but that was their way of saying it, after they looked at the definition and they looked at the pictures,” McClure says.

A number of Eagle Butte teachers are participating in the South Dakota Counts program, which is intended to build broad-based expertise and leadership for improving math instruction in grades 4-8. The program provides teachers an opportunity to deepen their content knowledge, improve instructional practices and develop data-use skills to support student learning.

McClure says they often have conversations about how they were taught math. “We were essentially told, this is how you do it, so memorize it and do it,” she says. “Now we’re learning to equip students with a variety of ways to solve problems, so they develop deeper understanding.”

McClure also tries to make sure hers isn’t the only voice students hear introduce a topic. “One of the things I’m thinking right now, is that I talk too much,” McClure says. “So I’ll use videos to let them hear someone else explain. I also try to give them the information with as few words as possible, or I give them the problem and let them talk in their groups right away.”

In giving up ownership of some of the talk time, McClure hopes her students take more ownership of the learning. Most importantly, she wants them to learn perseverance when things get difficult. “My favorite thing is when I hear students say, ‘I always thought this was hard, but it’s really not hard,’” she says. “And I think to myself, yes! They’ve got it!”

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